Thursday, August 14, 2008

"It's all subjective," he said

I was watching the Olympic Games today, and these two network talkers—a young woman and a young man—were yacking about some wrestler who, earlier, had been so angered at a judge's call that, during the subsequent medal ceremony, he threw down his bronze medal and stalked off. He had done some other unpleasant things, I guess.

Naturally, as the video played, the network talkers started yapping about the guy's poor sportsmanship. They said the usual things.

And then, as though he were correcting the indecorous athlete, the young guy said, "Well, I mean, it's all subjective." He shrugged.

Huh? The other talker, the young woman, didn't seem to like that. Then the first talker, the guy, said it again. Well, I had to go do something else, so I don't know what happened next.

I wonder what people like this guy mean by such remarks?

In my mind, there's a spectrum of judgments from the "clearly subjective" to the "clearly objective." I judge that the moon is in the sky. That's objective. I judge that plain vanilla ice cream is the best. That's subjective. Nobody's gonna disagree with that (i.e., that the first is objective and that the second is subjective).

But how does it go in the middle area?

First of all, there's no clear line to be drawn between subjective judgments and objective judgments, that's for sure.

When we say that a question or issue is objective, we mean at least that there exists (and there can be applied) some procedure for determining the truth of the matter. That the moon is in the sky is an objective judgment, for there exists a way to determine whether what is depicted by the statement corresponds to reality (i.e., whether it is true). That vanilla is the best ice cream is a subjective judgment, for there exists no test like that and nothing remotely of the sort. In the end, the judgment, if it can even be called that (for only a knucklehead would asset it as a truth), expresses mere personal taste.

Now here's the crucial point: the having or not having of such a test is a matter of degree, isn't it?

There simply is no conceptual backdrop that allows a determination of the truth of my vanilla judgment. (Even if a poll revealed that most people prefer vanilla, I don't think we'd conclude that "vanilla is the best ice cream.") But the same cannot be said for, say, the question of whether the 1st violinist in our orchestra is good. There are criteria, and they are widely recognized. These criteria figure into our shared understanding of what is desired and what is not in the performance of music. Now, this does leave room for some disagreement—for instance, there is no clarity about the relative importance of the different criteria. But it would be absurd to conclude that the judgment that this violinist is "good" is "just subjective." Well, it is somewhat subjective. But it is also somewhat objective. It is more objective than it is subjective.

My guess is that the kind of judgment that Olympic judges are called on to make is usually much more like the "violinist" judgment than like the "vanilla" judgment. If so, we wouldn't want to be running around saying that these judgments are "just subjective."

So what on earth was that shrugging network guy trying to say?

Maybe that the judgments that the Olympic officials are asked to make are not entirely objective, that there are unavoidable elements of subjectivity in such judgments.

I don't see how saying that would help here. I think it might help if the call had been, as we say, "close."

This doesn't seem to be one of those cases.

I'm no expert, but from what I've seen, it seems to me that the thing to say here isn't that the judging is "subjective." No, the thing to say here is that this wrestler flat lost and that he's an asshole, and so he threw a fit.

Sorry about the technical terms. But you get my meaning.

P.S.: "I'm no expert" is quite the understatement. Perhaps Abrahamian had good reason to be angry. I don't know. See this. In any case, my point here concerns the thinking of the network talker, not the conduct of Olympic wrestling judges. Obviously, bias (corruption) is a potential defect of judging (beyond "subjectivity").

P.P.S.: I assumed that it goes without saying that the degree of "subjectivity" in athletic judging varies from sport to sport and that, within a given sport, it varies depending on the kind of call. Obviously, some calls are more subjective than others in judging wrestling. The Olympic judges in this case evidently had available to them (after the ref's crucial call) appeal to an instant replay camera. For whatever reason, they chose not to avail themselves of that option, which may suggest that, in the judgment of the officials, the call was not close.

But, getting back to the subject: I still don't know what the network talker thought he was saying exactly. There are many things he could have said that would have made sense to me, e.g., "when you enter into competition, you (tacitly) accept the refereeing judgments (including appeals) for, after all, in the end, subjective elements in judging are ineliminable, and so we must accept that and go forward." --OK, but one does not express all that by saying, "It's subjective." Besides, in a given case, it might not be subjective at all, as when, say, a wrestler is tossed around the mat like a rag doll or, say, he decides to take a nap during the match.

I still think that Abrahamian is an "asshole," but not because he was angry about the crucial call, whatever it was. Don't know enough to judge that. It is hard to justify his messing up the other medalists' big moment (receiving medals) as he did. If there had been bias or error, it certainly wasn't those guys' fault.

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